Genre work vs. ‘real’ writing

So much going on, so much I want to talk about, but I’ve got rehearsal this evening so one thing at a time is probably best. I’m actually nervous for tonight – not so much about getting in and working with the script; I’m always raring to get started on a show in that respect. But being the newbie, walking in for the first time and getting acquainted with everyone and how things work…that tends to be the thing that scares me to death.

I’m outspoken, I have my opinions, and creatively I suppose I border on bold. But man, put me in a social situation and my poor heart is pounding out of my chest. Give me a script, give me music, give me a pen and paper, give me a sewing machine and I’m fine. Throw me into a crowded room and make me hold a conversation? Check, please. But I also realize that once I push past that initial “oh my god” moment, I’m usually okay. And if I never tried anything new, I would never have some of the incredible experiences I’ve had. It’s just getting past those first few moments…

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about genre stuff lately, especially horror/fantasy stuff. Blame it on Horrorhound this weekend, blame it on my library run yesterday, blame it on a lot of things. But I have been occupied on the topic of genre fiction. As I go through submitting to different places, it intrigues me that a lot of ezines and mags are coming out saying that they want genre fiction that’s more like literary fiction. And to that I say – shouldn’t a good story be a good story? Why are we trying to make a distinction that shouldn’t even have to be made? It just takes me back to my creative writing classes in college, where we had to listen to the professor go on and on about how he only wanted stories based in real life. That’s fair, it was his course, but in going back and looking at some of the pieces I wrote during that time…yeah, they were set in the real world, but they were just as full of plot holes or loose points as some genre work I’ve read. And yet he ate stuff up simply because it was “real.”

I really hate that a lot of people blow off  the speculative/fantasy/horror genres as not “real” literature or as being the stuff that’s geared towards a lesser audience, that’s suited to a young adult audience, that’s written to cash in. I would like to think I am reasonably well-read. I’ve read a lot of real-world, literary, true-to-life stuff. Some is really good. Admittedly I prefer it in play form (Tennessee Williams, Chekov, David Hare, Arthur Miller, A. R. Gurney – I love them all) because I feel like it’s a little easier to be engaged by what’s going on. If I’m going to be distracted from my real life by more real-ish life, I’d rather see it play out in front of me than on a page.

Not all genre work is good. I will totally admit that. I’ve read a lot of sucktacular titles trying to find good stuff. For every “American Gods” there’s something like “The Travelling Vampire Show.” (yes I know a lot of people like that book. That’s fine. Personally I would rather it fall on my skull from a very high place than read it again, but to each his own.) And I agree that a lot of fantasy and horror are  being used as a vehicle for merchandising or as lite material for a young adult audience. But when it’s done well, when it really succeeds I feel like those stories can be a huge metaphor for any sort of life experience.

You want to know about helplessness, about how petty people can act, about the fear of not being in control? Stephen King explores all of that masterfully. You want to focus in on the weirdness of coming of age, about love versus the other thousand emotions coursing through a young girl’s brain, about being not knowing who or what you are? Madeline L’Engle and Holly Black handle this expertly in very different ways.  Neil Gaiman’s love for stories and what they do for and to people pours off the page of any of his books. I have a huge respect and love for Gaiman (he’s my second fave, right behind Bradbury) because he treats his characters (women especially) with respect and doesn’t write down to a situation because it’s fantasy. There are no punches pulled in his work, but there’s also a unique, subtle vulnerable quality there that is  the same sort of quality found in a lot of Tennessee Williams plays that I’ve sat through.  Different situations, different techniques, but the emotional core is there in both.

Look at Clive Barker’s ‘Imajica’ and tell me that it doesn’t have a lot to say about religion, reality, and gender roles.  And Ray Bradbury…oh Bradbury, writer of my heart, my fears, my most bizarre dreams. Yes, he’s known for writing about distant worlds and crazy situations, but he always, always finds the emotional truth for his characters. You are never in any doubt about their love, their fears, their hate, their motivations, because they are the same emotions that rule every one of us. He may not have gone through every situation he writes about, himself, but they are all based on very real feelings he has had; they are grounded in some sort of experience he has gone through. And that makes good writing no matter what category you put it in.

Yes, genre work serves as escapism, but is that really so bad? Sometimes we need to be coyly reminded that life is okay, that there is hope. Is it any wonder that ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was hugely popular during the Depression? People didn’t want true to life experiences; they wanted hope, they wanted adventure. They wanted to forget for just a few moments about all the things they couldn’t control. It’s no wonder that pulp literature also came into its own around that time. And with horror – it also can remind us that life isn’t all that bad in comparison, or maybe we need to think about our behavior a little more. Haven’t you ever recognized unflattering parts of yourself in someone’s scary story?

Anything can be done well or not so well. Just because things take place on other planets, other realities, just because they feature supernatural characters and seemingly “unrealistic” situations should not dumb them down as lite fiction. Because at the end of the day a successful story should make a person think. It should stick with a person long after they’ve closed the book or turned off the Kindle. But most of all, a really successful piece of work should connect with a person and Should Make Them Feel.

And if it takes faeries, vampires, and alternate realities to get people to pay attention, then that’s what it takes.


2 thoughts on “Genre work vs. ‘real’ writing

  1. Your last point is so important: Make the reader feel! And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a good feeling — maybe it challenges the reader, maybe it unsettles the reader’s deepest-held beliefs. But as long as the reader feels something, you know you’re doing your job as a writer.

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